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Poise Under Pressure

Basketball is Psychology XII


Poise is the ability to stay consistent and keep internal balance no matter what is going on externally.



March is when poise seems most essential because the external environment can fill you with pressure. However, true poise comes from giving the same effort in offseason workouts, preseason practices, and exhibition games as you do in championship games. You develop poise by treating every practice like it’s a championship game, so when it really is a championship game, you simply have to give the same effort you give every single day.



To those who have developed poise, it doesn’t matter what the stakes are.


It doesn’t matter how many turnovers they’ve had.


It doesn’t matter how many minutes they have played.


It doesn’t matter how they feel.


It doesn’t matter what the other team is ranked.


It doesn’t matter how much time is left in the game.


It doesn’t matter if the other team is in a full court press.


It doesn’t matter what they crowd is yelling.


It doesn’t matter how many points they’ve scored.



When you put the pressure on yourself every day to give championship level effort, external pressures can’t put any extra demands on you, because you’ve already placed higher demands on yourself.



"Every championship team I've ever coached had the instinct to treat everything like it’s the most important thing in the world to them." - Geno Auriemma




You have to play with the same effort, intensity, and enthusiasm in practice as you do in a game when you are up by 50 or down by 50. Even if the odds have shifted against you, that is not an excuse to give up.




“Up 50 or up 10 or 2, we play the same way. The minute you change the way you play, the minute you get worse as a player.” - Diana Taurasi



Basketball is a game of runs. Those who can stay poised won’t be phased by the other teams’ runs, and won’t let up when their team makes a run.




An important factor to staying poised is your breathing: Dr. Rajpal Brar gives us insight on how to keep your composure:



Basketball is a game of composure – the players who can stay the calmest under pressure tend to have the best results. You can see the game clearer, think clearer, and therefore perform your best. From a scientific perspective, that calmness comes from an effective balance of what’s known as your autonomic nervous system (ANS).



The ANS consists of two different branches: The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) aka the “fight or flight” system which is the body’s stress response and the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) aka the “rest and digest” system which is the body’s relaxation response.



As a basketball player, you need both of these systems. The SNS helps rev you up and mobilize your body’s resources and the PSNS helps calm you back down, allowing you to think and see the game.



Here’s the problem: It’s really easy to tilt too far into the stress side and it’s even easier during high pressure situations. When that happens, stress can overwhelm you. This is known as the stress curve:



One way to battle that is through a technique I call “exhale-pause breathing” which will help downshift you from that stressed out response to a relaxed one while, and this is key, getting you more comfortable with actually being relaxed. We’ve become so used to being in the stressed out state that our mind and body consider it the new-normal; therefore, it takes effort and some discomfort - as it does when trying to change any habit - to shift that norm back into balance.



Whether it’s before practice, games, at halftime, or simply during a spare 5 minutes during the day, try the following:



Lay flat on your back. If it’s more comfortable for you, bend your knees with your feet flat on the floor. I recommend closing your eyes but if you’re not comfortable with that, leave them open.

Put your hands on your ribcage. This is going to provide key feedback on the depth of your exhale.



Take a deep breath in (inhale) and now breathe out (exhale) as deeply as you can. The first few times you exhale, push down gently on your rib cage and you’ll likely feel more air come out. We don’t like to exhale and I’ll explain why shortly.



Repeat this deep inhale and exhale twice. Repeat it for a third time but do not breathe back in after the third exhale. Use your hands on the ribcage as feedback for whether you’ve actually exhaled all of the air out from your system. Now hold that position without any air in your system. Hold it for as long as you can until you start to feel a distinct “air hunger” and then breathe back in. If you prefer videos, here’s one I made on it.



Here’s what this technique is doing:



Whenever we inhale, our sympathetic nervous system (stress response) is activated. That’s reflected by the fact that our heart rate goes up with every inhale. Whenever we exhale, our parasympathetic nervous system (relaxation response) kicks on. Our heart rate goes down. It’s a pendulum that swings back and forth. This concept is the foundation for using heart rate variability as a measure of stress.



In my experience, most players are great at inhaling and holding their breath but aren’t so good at exhaling and being without air in their system. Intuitively, this makes sense. If you’re always stressed out and used to being stressed out, you’re now biased towards the inhale because of its relationship with the sympathetic nervous system. That pendulum is only swinging one way.

What this breathing technique does is take that pendulum, swing it back to relaxation, and hold it there, while giving you external feedback cues (the hands on the ribs) to make sure you’re not cheating!



It’s going to instantly shift you out of that highly stressed response and back to playing clear, composed ball. Give it a try.



Dr. Rajpal Brar has a doctorate in physical therapy from Northern Arizona University, and runs his own sports medicine and performance business, 3CB Performance, in West LA and Valencia, CA. He also works at a hospital — giving him experience with patients in the immediate healthcare setting and neurological patients (post stroke, post brain injury) — and has been practicing for 1.5 years. Brar is additionally training at UCLA’s mindful awareness research center (MARC). Follow him @3cbperformance on Instagram and Twitter.




If you don’t treat practice like it’s important, you won’t be ready when the lights come on. Instead, you’ll be ready to give up as soon as the other team makes a run. With this losing mentality, the game will be over in the first quarter. A winning mentality never quits, never relents, and never backs down.



Written by Julie Fournier

Founder & CEO of Basketball is Psychology

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© 2020 by Basketball is Psychology.

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